Kimberly Peirce Heads to Personal War
by Paul Fischer
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Kimberly Peirce was highly lauded when her debut feature Boys Don’t Cry hit our screens in 1999, winning an Oscar for lead actress Hilary Swank. Almost a decade later and Peirce has finally made her second feature, Stop Loss, exploring the life of a soldier who refuses to take part in a forced second tour of duty. Some have suggested Stop Loss is anti-war and even anti-Texas, but as Paul Fischer discovered, the director vehemently and passionately disagrees.
Paul Fischer: It had been a long time between drinks. First of all, why has it taken you so long? I mean, Boys Don’t Cry was so acclaimed. It won an Oscar. What was it about you that made you decide to take so long to make another film?
Kimberly Peirce: Well, you know, I got very spoiled with that movie, in that I started that in grad school, it turned into what it turned into and I was deeply in love with that character and that story, so in a way, it set the artistic bar and the satisfaction bar very high. That was the greatest experience of my life, I had this wonderful Hollywood career and they offered me movies, and they offered me a lot of money. I really wanted to make sure that I had my footing, and I wanted to be rooted in something that I loved that I understood, and that meant a tremendous amount to me. So what I ended up doing was, I fell in love with this story, the William Desmond Taylor murder. It’s an unsolved Hollywood murder mystery. We figured out who did it, how they did it, and how and why it got covered up. I ended up casting Annete Bening, Hugh Jackman, Evan Rachel Wood, Ben Kingsley. This was the end of ‘03, so I wasn’t taking so long. I was working pretty quickly. You know, I wrote the script, and I also cast it and the tough thing was, the studio ran the numbers. It was a period piece, and they said, “Look, we would love to see the $30 million version of this, but we only want to pay for the $20 million version and we don’t want to see that version.”
KP: Typical. And, you know, it’s happened to a number of filmmakers. It’s why people have multiple projects in the works at a time and it really is a heartbreak. We’re dying to work, particularly once you’ve cast the movie and you’ve written a script, you’re in deep. The fact that we didn’t go and shoot it—you know, I lost some time off my career. And I was just so hungry to work. So literally—and that had taken me every day up until that point. And then literally within, like, a week, I changed course. And what I said was, “Look, I’m not going to go through this again.” And I made a decision to finance the entire development of this. Which is, I financed all the research. I traveled around the country and interviewed soldiers. Collected soldiers’ videos. And I worked with Mark Richard, who’s a novelist, and we wrote the screenplay. And I accepted no money. And, you know, I was friends with heads of studios. And they were like, “Oh my God, these stories sound amazing, about the war, and about your brother. Would you like to develop this? We’d love to make the movie.” And I just said, “Look. You know what? We’ll keep talking. And why don’t I just write the script, and then I’ll give it to you, and then you’ll decide?” And what we did was, we set it up so that on a Friday we gave them the script, and we gave them a five-minute trailer, which was a combination of the footage that I had shot around America, and the soldier-made videos, which I’d love to tell you about, which I collected. And we said, “You buy it, you make it.” Did that on Friday, and by Sunday or Saturday we had four studios, two financiers who not only wanted to buy the script, but wanted to greenlight the movie. And that was amazing, sso that was extraordinarily satisfying. And then we went and made the movie. So basically, Silent Star—that was the name of the first one—hit the obstacle that it hit at the end of ‘03. Beginning of ‘04—or, it was right around then, the week after—I started intensively researching this. By November of ‘05, which is a very short gestation period, we had a script that we sold as a greenlit movie. And literally, I haven’t had a day off since that point.
PF: How angry were you when you were writing this script?
KP: That’s very interesting, how angry was I? Well, I think I was very moved by the soldiers’ stories and certainly it was heartbreaking to see that they were being recycled and sent back over and over to do these tours, that they already had done their time with. I mean, it’s very interesting that—I was in New York for 9/11. I saw the Towers fall. I was living downtown. I’d been there for 13 years. And it was utterly personal and heartbreaking that that happened. Then I went to vigils for the victims with my friends. And then America declared war. And I knew I needed to make a movie about the soldiers.
PF: Did you feel the war was justified at the time, based on what you saw on 9/11?
KP: I didn’t know, personally, if the people who had committed 9/11 were gonna because in Afghanistan. You know, when we declared war, I felt like I needed to catch up on whether that was the right people to be pursuing, that’s all.
PF: Do you feel—I mean, you know, a lot of people that I’ve spoken to about Stop Loss have commented on the fact that it struck them as being both very anti-Texan, as well as being very anti-American. Do you see it that way?
KP: I’m not sure who you’re talking to. But I just screened in 22 cities in America. And I sat in on every screening, and I went to the Q&As. And tons of people stayed afterward. And whether they were conservative or liberal, loved the movie and saw it as completely pro-soldier.
PF: Pro-soldier, yes. But very, very anti-war. And very anti- the situation that exists.
KP: Well, the other thing is—I mean, again, I’ve had so many soldiers come to the screenings. And even soldiers who want to go back to war. And they said they loved the movie. So the movie doesn’t seem to—the movie seems to be pro-soldier. The other thing in terms of the Texan stuff is, I just left Austin—I mean, I just left Dallas, Houston, and Austin, the South By Southwest Festival, and I had the best screenings that I’d had in the whole country. So—the Texans love it. I mean, I don’t know. It’s like a love letter to Texas, you know?
PF: Do you feel that when young men who are contemplating going to war see Stop Loss they might have second thoughts? I mean, do you hope that is the case? Or you don’t think that is the case?
KP: I really want people to understand what they’re getting into. That would be my hope. Is if a young person who’s 18 years old wants to go fight for his country and wants to enlist, I want him or her to know everything that is gonna be expected of them. I mean, because I feel like, this is your life. And if you’re gonna commit for four, five years, they have a right to know. And if they want to go, then they should. But they need to know what they’re getting into. It’s very interesting that it was a patriotic soldier who was in service who told me about stop-loss. I was already writing the emblematic story of patriotic citizens who signed up to fight for their country, to defend their home, their country, and their family, and went to Afghanistan and then Iraq, and then had this profound realization that it was about brotherhood. The camaraderie between the soldiers. That’s what soldiers tell me over and over and over. That that’s the profound experience. I was already writing that story when this soldier IM’d me and said, “Do you want to hear something fucked up?” And I was like, “Yeah, I always would like to hear something fucked up. What?” And he texted me, “STOP-LOSS.” And I stared at the word, “Stop-loss.” And I didn’t understand it. So I said, “I don’t understand. What is that?” And he said, “It’s a military term. It’s a back-door draft.” And I said, “Okay, I don’t understand. What’s a back door draft? I mean, I know what the draft is.” And he said, “They’re involuntarily extending the tours of service persons past their contract.” And he said, “They’re recycling guys who should be getting out.” And he said, “And I’m pissed.” And I was like, “Why are you so pissed?” And he said, “Because my buddy, who I just fought with, who needs to get out, because his wife can’t take another tour—it’s too stressful on the family—is being stop-lossed right back into the combat zone. And I don’t know that he’s gonna survive it. And I certainly don’t think that the marriage is gonna survive it.” He’s like, “They’re screwing my buddy.” So when he saw that his buddy was being screwed, there was such a dramatic reaction.
PF: How did your perceptions of this war change throughout the process of your research, and the shooting of the movie?
KP: Well, I came to understand the war, in many ways, for what it is. It’s interesting to me, what the soldiers were telling me over and over is, number one, there is no green zone, which distinguishes it, say, from most other wars. Meaning, at night the soldiers go back to their barracks, or during the day, and—you know, their forward operating bases are right near the cities that they’re surveilling. So mortars are being fired at them constantly. Mortars are very imprecise weapons. So you just have to get used to mortars hitting all the time. And as they say, it’s only dangerous if it hits you. So that’s very stressful, to constantly have that sense of danger. The soldiers also said to me that both the checkpoints and having to do house-to-house searches and having to fight in the bedrooms and the hallways and the kitchens of people’s homes is incredibly scary. And it increases the risk that you’re gonna kill an innocent person, or that your own soldiers are gonna get killed or wounded, because you don’t know who’s gonna be on the other side of that door. You don’t know who’s gonna be in that car. Is it gonna be somebody with a gun, or not? So I came to understand the intimate details of how this fighting is incredibly difficult on soldiers. I came to understand that there was a very high suicide rate. That there was a high rate of brain injury. And that our armor was—you know, better than it ever had been. And that meant that people who might have died in other wars were living with new kinds of injuries.
PF: How tough a movie was this for you to cast?
KP: I mean, every movie’s challenging to get it right. But I feel extraordinarily lucky. I love my cast. Avy Kaufman is fantastic, a great casting director. And Scott Rudin is very insightful about cast. And we ended up hiring Ryan, who I think is brilliant. And he came in, and he seemed like—I had been interviewing soldiers, so I knew that we needed to make it feel right from the soldier’s point of view. Particularly because we were going to be showing it while this conflict was still going on. And I wanted soldiers to be proud of it. Because I have military family. So Ryan was fantastic, because he had that masculinity that I needed. But he had a sensitivity and a maturity, probably because he’s the father of two kids. Channing Tatum hadn’t been in the movie that you probably know him for. That hadn’t come out. So he came in, he was very what they call “green.” But he was fantastic. And he was hunky, and he was charismatic, and he had that feeling that—you know, he would go and be the hotheaded guy who would run into the house and you’d have to go after him if you were Ryan. His mother sent me a bunch of pictures of him as a kid. She called him Chanimal. And I called him Manimal, because he was my man animal. Then there’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who I just think is an extraordinary, extraordinary actor. Great instincts. Doesn’t give you a false beat. Is very much like a Method actor. Was totally inside of it. Victor Rasuk is, I think, wonderful. And he’s sensitive, and he’s sweet, and there’s a lightness to him that, really, we needed in that character. And then there’s Abbie Cornish, who I just think we’re gonna see so much from to come. She is just totally natural, and real and she has that thing that certain actors have, which is pure screen presence. She doesn’t need a line. She can carry a scene simply by being in it. She just—she exudes a certain kind of emotional clarity. She was my first choice, and she was unavailable, and I was heartbroken.
PF: What did you see her in?
KP: Candy and Somersault. She was great. And she was unavailable. I was looking at all these girls, and they weren’t right. They were good. And then her agent called me and said, “Kim, Abbie read your script, she loves it. She wants to play the part. She wants to fly in for an audition.” It was amazing. She flew from Australia to Texas, and she gave an amazing audition. And—I mean, it was just so obvious. I would have hired her without the audition.
PF: As a female writer-director, was it more or less challenging to create male characters than the Abbie Cornish character, and the other women in the movie?
KP: I don’t know that it was—they were just different. It was just creating different types of characters. I mean, I was interviewing soldiers, so in a way I was more deeply steeped in so many different soldiers’ stories that I was really using their words and their images to bring it to life. So it’s kind of like the work I do for all construction of characters. I just get deeply inside the character, what their life need is, and they go about pursuing it. I really enjoy creating masculinity. It’s an area of great curiosity for me. And then the Abbie character, I was interviewing military wives and daughters. And since my brother was fighting, I was going through it on my end. So—I mean, I had an insight into that character for that reason. They just pull at different parts of you.
PF: What has your family’s reaction been to the movie?
KP: Love it. You know? Really proud of it, and love it.
PF: Are you optimistic about an end to this conflict, or do you think it just depends now on who wins government at the end of the year?
KP: I think it definitely depends on who wins the government. Who gets put into office. And I’m optimistic that as these stories get out there and we see what’s happening to our fellow citizens that we’re all gonna feel compelled to—you know, start protecting them better.
PF: This is a marketing challenge, I guess, for a big Hollywood studio to market a picture like this, for those audiences who are non-military, and all that kind of thing. Do you think it’s a tough sell, or are you optimistic that it will get the kind of broad recognition it deserves?
KP: I mean, I’m optimistic because I’ve been to 22 cities, and I’ve sat with the movie in military towns like San Diego, down in Miami with a half-Latin audience, up in Boston with a more college-driven audience. I’ve seen every type of audience, and I’ve been all over America. And I say this with all humility, but people love the movie. And they say, “Thank you for making an emotional story. Thank you for making a movie about people, about the relationships between soldiers and their families.” They say, “Thank you for making a movie that’s about coming home.” And I think they really are excited by the fact that it really comes from the soldiers’ point of view and a young person’s point of view. And that it’s energetic, and it’s truly entertaining, and that it aspires to be that. So the main thing is just that it gets out there that that’s what it is. I actually have a Web site, www.StopLossMovie.com/soundoff. You should check it out. We give cameras to soldiers and their families, and they tell their stories. And then they actually get on-line, military wives and soldiers, and they answer questions that audiences ask. And then people who’ve been to my tour throughout the country, they write in. And I’ve had vets writing in how much they loved the movie. I’ve had civilians saying how much they loved the movie because of the things that I said. I mean, it’s really a profound kind of intersection of people who’s coming to the site to voice their opinion and tell their stories.
PF: Both Boys Don’t Cry and Stop Loss are very emotionally tough pieces. Do you want to try and tonally do something dramatically different next?
KP: Well, if you notice—I mean, for whatever toughness there is, there definitely is still—you know, a lot of fun in the movie. There’s the shooting of the wedding present, there’s the dance hall. I mean, those are, in a way, light and fluffy. And me, I’m writing a romantic comedy right now.
PF: Oh, you are?
KP: For real!
PF: What kind of romantic comedy? I mean, how different are you gonna—because, you know, they’re tough to do.
KP: Of course they’re tough to do! But I have a story that’s incredibly funny. It’s based on a true story that happened to me. So we’ll say it’s a romantic comedy with a gender twist. So it’s naturally gonna be a little bit different than the movies you’ve seen before.
PF: It’s amazing to me that before I interviewed Hillary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry, the last I’d seen her in was 90210.
KP: That—well, I mean, that’s the last thing anybody else had seen her in. [LAUGHTER]
PF: Are you surprised that she has now got a second Oscar, and has become so successful? And do you want to work with her again?
KP: I’d love to work with her again. No, I’m not surprised. I think she did a phenomenal job. And I think she’s—you know, super-talented, and she’s motivated, and she’s got the right attitude. And, you know, you mix all those elements together, and—I mean, look. I think it’s a miracle anybody gets a second Oscar. You know, I think it’s unusual. But I was certainly—it made sense that s got it. She deserved it, and she’s really brilliant.
PF: I take it the romantic comedy would be your next project?
KP: You know, that’s about if the world’s ready to make it. We finish these scripts, we go out there, we cast it, and then we see if the studios are ready to pay for it. So for me, I’m gonna do the next movie that goes.
PF: And I take it you have other things that you’re working on.
KP: I’m working on that, I’m working on a dark sexual story which is really, really amazing. And I’m also honing in on a political thriller based on a true story that’s really exciting in the vein of Three Days of the Condor.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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